There are some films so classic they withstand the test of time. Brian DePalma, director of the classic horror film Carrie, crafted OBSESSION along with writer Paul Schrader, a film that is still riveting, suspenseful and shocking 43 years after its release.
This 1976 psychological thriller explores how an unresolved trauma makes a lasting impact on one’s psyche and leads to unconscious engagement in behaviors that only make matters worse. When Michael Courtland (Cliff Robertson) fails to retrieve his wife and daughter after being kidnapped, he spends over a decade experiencing guilt, grief, and loss from their absence. It is not until many years later, that he meets Sandra (Genevieve Bujold), a woman resembling his departed wife. He falls in love and attempts to work through his unresolved grief only to be traumatized again when she is kidnapped with an identical ransom note.
A major highlight of this film is the level of suspense achieved through the story line and cinematography. The narrative explores a unique character arch for the protagonist, Michael Courtland, who initially evokes sympathy yet eventually becomes unlikable as you witness his descent into a twisted fantasy. A major thrilling aspect of this film is the relationships between Michael and Sandra, which is nothing less than cringe worthy. Michael’s behavior can be seen from the lens of Freud’s repetition compulsion. Michael appears to be repeating the same behaviors with Sandra hoping to unconsciously work through the trauma he experienced in his previous relationship with his wife. Although Sandra appears to be aware that Michael is only interested in her because she reminds him of his dead wife, she is complicit in his abusive grooming of her. This movie will have you screaming at the television. Or at least it did for me. When Sandra is kidnapped, the audience is then jerked into empathizing with Michael and thrown into the suspense of uncovering the mystery of these recurring kidnappings. These shifting feelings for the protagonist create a unique story arch and are compelling to the viewer. Finally, in regard to the story line, there is an incredible twist in this film which will absolutely take you by surprise. Just wait for it.
With locations in New Orleans and Florence, Italy, this film provides beautiful backdrops to compliment the cinematography. There are some exceptionally framed shots and close ups which complement the suspense. Michael Courtland also appears to never blink which once you notice it adds to the unsettling nature of his character. Imagery of the church reflected in Italy and in the New Orleans’ tombstone provides a strong visual motif throughout the film. Additionally, the choice to keep the bedroom locked in Michael Courtland’s house and focus visually on items of the deceased wife creates an eerie symbolism of her presence. Overall, the cinematography of the film is a major highlight adding to the suspense.
Despite this film being released four years before the turn of the decade, it is not like an 80s horror film. It almost feels like you are stepping into a time capsule. The technology used in the film makes it seem surreal. There is also a slower build than contemporary films but it does pay off in a big way. There is a reason this film is a classic being re-released by Scream Factory. It is definitely worth a watch.